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KKK costumes in N.C., 1870. Engraving by US Marshall JG Hester. NY Public Library.

KKK costumes in N.C., 1870. Engraving by US Marshall JG Hester. NY Public Library.

Some time ago, I posted an essay about the Ku Klux Klan’s terrorization of Orange County, North Carolina, in the years following the Civil War. Recently, I recovered from my files evidence of the Klan’s rampages through neighboring Granville County as well. 

The following petitions, sent in 1868 and 1869 to North Carolina’s Republican governor, William W. Holden, include the names of numerous Granville County men of color who were free from slavery long before the Civil War. Silas L. Curtis, Terral Curtis, Cuffee Mayo, William Tyler, and A. B. Kerzy lived in the Tally Ho township of Granville County. Having grown up before the war, they were forbidden by law to learn to read or write; thus, most of the men were semi-literate or illiterate. Silas Curtis, who wrote both the petitions, was an exception.

The 1868 petitioners belonged to a local branch of the Republican Union Leagues (also called Loyal Leagues) which were under assault by the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan, determined to turn back Reconstruction, drive Republicans from power, and reassert dominance over African Americans, functioned as a terrorist arm of the pro-Confederate southern wing of the Democratic Party.

The petition is blunt in describing the violence wreaked upon the community, and includes details of the sexual humiliation of a woman of color and the attempted murder of another. The petitioners are adamant in declaring their rights and their need for state assistance. In signing or allowing their names to be placed on such a petition, they risked great personal danger. A note at the bottom asks its deliverer to hand the petition directly to Governor Holden to prevent the “Rebels” from destroying it.

I recognize many of the men’s names from the extensive research I conducted in county records while writing my first book, Unruly Women. In that book, I discussed A. B. Kerzy (Archibald Kearsey), at some length for his participation in underground trading during the war; others are mentioned as well. Although I also briefly mentioned the petitions, they are published below in their entirety.

In transcribing the letters, I have added paragraph breaks and used common punctuation and grammar, but endeavored to spell words exactly as they appear on the originals. (The originals of both petitions are contained in the Governors’ Papers, W.W. Holden, N.C. Department of Archives and History)

Vikki Bynum

 

Oct 11, 1868

Our Governor–Dear Sir:

I take the privilige of writing to you on this occasion for this reason, not because we are scared out, but in the first place, you are our State Executive. And when we are having outrages comitted among us, you are our only refuge to which we have to flee for advice and protection.

Therefor I take the privilige to inform you of some outrages comitted amoung us. And it is not only now and then—it is geting to be a genrel thing. On Saturday night last, the Ku Klux were raging in Oxford and Tally Ho. They first formed themselves in line in front of the Colored School Room, thinking the Leagues men were at lodge in there. And failing to find them, went off to other places and don the same, tho as it happen the leagues had adjoined [adjourned] before they came out and they watched them.

And they now say they intend to brake up the Leagues before the Election. Col. Aimey, in a speech on Friday last at Oxford, [said] that if we would stop the Leagues he would stop the KuKlux. And if not, he could not do nothing with them.

On Thursday night last they went to a Colored man’s house and got him out and Beet him cruley, beet his wife and cut her dress open and tied her to a tree—then told them if ever they told it, or told who it was, they would kill them. They then went to another one’s house and comence to tarring the top of his house off and some of them at the door. I broke in [and] got hold of his wife—he got out of the way—and got her out and she got loose and ran and they shot her in the back and by the side of the face and she now lies in a low state of helth. And a few nights ago they went to another colored man’s house and treated him the same.

I will now give you the colored mens names: Ned Mallory, Parson Jones, and Pressley Herndon. Those white men was John C. Hugen, William Stem, John Wheeler, John Day, William Boles, Hay Stem, and one by the name Bishop, Jack Boothe, Flay[?] Moor, Sam Boothe, Henry Hasken, Flucher [Fletcher?] Moor, Tom Jones, Wm. Jones, and others–that are comiting these outrages. And I have not told near all they have and are doing.

We appeal to you–for some protection in some way. Such men oght to be stoped in their outrages.

Sir, I hope to hear from you soon. We don’t want a malissia [militia] here among us. But God in heaven knows we must have something—otherwise we will have to give up Gen. Grant and take Seymour.* And if I have to do that I am going to take me a rope and go to the woods.      Your obedent Servant,

Silas L. Curtis

Cuffee Mayo

Jordan Trevan

J. Macaver

Granderson Russell

Jack Jefferson

Antoney Philpott

James Anderson

Burry Williams

Charles Curtis

Terral Curtis

James Hunt

Josep R. Halley

W. S. Boon

Wm. Tyler

A. B. Kerzy

*Ulysses S. Grant, Republican, and Horatio Seymour, Democrat, were the 1868 candidates for the U.S. Presidency.

 

The second petition, 1869, protests Tally Ho’s township election, claiming that Democrats deliberately miscounted votes in order to claim victory for their own candidate.

This petition, also written by Silas Curtis, contains similar but fewer names and appears to have been written in much greater haste. One of the appended names, “Lunchford Wiliford” (Lunsford Williford), caught my eye immediately. Lunsford was the son of Susan Williford, a poor white woman who appears prominently in chapter four of Unruly Women. Antebellum North Carolina laws against interracial marriage forbade Susan to marry Peter Curtis, who, like Silas L. Curtis, belonged to one of Granville County’s most prominent free families of color. Susan had several children by Peter Curtis, though it’s not clear whether Curtis also fathered Lunsford. Nevertheless, Lunsford became part of the Curtis family when he married Harriet Curtis, the daughter of Peter’s sister, Nancy Curtis.

Note that this petition proclaims an alliance between “the colored race and the labering class of white people,” reflective of kinship ties that created vibrant communities of mixed-race people in North Carolina. 

August 11, 1869

Your Exencilence Governor W.W. Holden,

Dear Sir, We the Republicans of Granville County most respetifully protest against the township election of Tally Ho in consequence of the way it was conducted. And do earnestly believe that it oght to be remoddled, and a fair and square election given.

We most recollect that the Democrats will—and do—do all and everything they can to get in power. And they think if they can fool the Republicans, as they have already done at Tally Ho and other places, and get in power in the townships. By that means, after awhile, they can get the county offices and from that to the state’s offices and United states offices. And then they can nullify the republican form of government and place the colored race, and labering class of white people, in the same position—only wors—as they were before.

And please your honor, Sir, if you cannot grant us a re-election—which we honestly believe that we oght to have—what must we do in such a case? And we can also prove by a colored man, a responsible one—that the Democrat candidate told him that they had beet them. And if the Republicans had had as meny more as they did have, we would have beet them. And as it was, they only beet [by] about thirty.

What must we do? Must we put up with sunch [such], when we know there are frode [fraud?]. Know we will die first.

Recollect that dividing into townships all of the counties makes a consitable difference—among the colored people—egnorent as they are.

And meny and numbers are dissatisfied at the Election except [if] it had bin don fair, and we appeal to our Superior—our Surpream, for refuge.

Most respectfully Your obedient Servents

Hoping to here from you soon.

Silas L. Curtis (sig)

Cuffee Mayo (sig)

Solomon Green (sig)

John Norwood

James Harris

Thomas Curtis

Lunchford Wiliford

Benjamon Allen

Esaw Lassiter

Robert Ridley

And many others—too tedious to mention, both white and colored.

Answer to S. L Curtis

Oxford, N.C.

NOTE: For more on violence against freedmen in post Civil War North Carolina, “The Death of a Freedman,” also on Renegade South.

Vikki Bynum

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The following guest essay by Wayne K. Driver expands upon my own research on the Morris Family of Gloucester County, Virginia.

Vikki Bynum, Moderator

By Wayne K. Driver

Throughout my years of researching my family from Gloucester County and the Tidewater Area of Virginia, I have noted that several families, including my own, were listed as “free Negroes” or “mulattoes” prior to 1800. This discovery ignited my interest; I wanted to know more about these families and how they fit into a society in which most people of African descent were slaves and where those of European descent dominated. I wondered if these free people of color had any rights, if they owned property or had the freedom to move about without being harassed.  Since my focus was on the years prior to 1800, I also wondered how they felt about the Revolutionary War.  Which side did they support? Which side promised a better future for them?

Families with the names ALLMOND/ALLMAN, BLUFORD, DRIVER, FREEMAN, GOWEN/ GOING, HEARN, KING, LEMON, MEGGS, MONOGGIN, and MORRIS are identified in various documents as living free from slavery.  “Free” did not necessarily mean, however, that they were as free as those of full European ancestry.  These “free” people did not have slave masters, but they did have limitations place upon them and hardships that would not be understood by my generation.

The above families of color, as well as others not cited in this essay, contributed to America by serving in wars, participating in religious movements, and working in many trades. At the same time, they strove for greater freedom of access to education, property ownership, and social equality.  Too often, these pioneers are forgotten in the history books; rarely are they recognized for their work in shaping the counties in which they lived.  When I drive through Gloucester, to my knowledge there is no physical memorial that bears witness to their service in the Revolutionary War, or their contributions to their communities.  I can find all types of negative propaganda concerning “free Negroes,” such as recommendations for their forced removal from the county, or punishment for not paying taxes. My hope is that someday the leaders of these communities will recognize free families of color and teach generations to come about their positive contributions.

Society and Labels

Societies are often divided into historical eras.  I am particularly interested in the colonial, revolutionary, and antebellum periods of the United States, and how “free people of color” fared during each of them.  My research has taken me to different states and localities, where I have noticed varying attitudes displayed by white officials toward people of color. For example, Virginia law prohibited interracial marriages, yet I found such marriages listed in some court records.  I also noticed how inconsistently people in power recorded a person’s skin color or race.  In some cases, the description was diligent and descriptive; in others, it was not.  For example, members of the DRIVER family were described in some records as “white” and in others as “mulatto” or “colored”.  I found these records interesting and disturbing at the same time, and therefore decided to explore these subjects and share my observations about them.

Samuel "Squire" Driver, 1815-1872, and Sarah "Sally" Driver (maiden name unknown), 1815-1872

Samuel “Squire” Driver, 1815-1872, and Sarah “Sally” Driver (maiden name unknown), 1815-1872

As I browsed through various historical documents, I noticed that court clerks paid close attention to describing the person(s) being listed.  By law, in 1705, a mulatto was a person deemed to have one-eighth or more African blood. By 1866, one-quarter African blood meant one was “colored,” whereas one-quarter Indian blood meant one was Indian.

In some records, persons defined as “mulatto” were further defined by their shade of complexion. A mulatto might be described as “Yellow/Yellowish,” “Tawney,” “Light”, or “Brown/Dark Mulatto,”—the list goes on.  When I first saw the term “Tawney,” I had to research its meaning. After consulting FreeDictionary.Com, I concluded that this complexion color included several shades of brown ranging from light to brownish orange.

The mulatto MEGGS Family of Middlesex and Gloucester County was described as “Yellow” and “Tawney” in various records. For example, “free negro” James Meggs, born around 1752, was listed as a “yellow” tithable in Middlesex County in 1787, and as a “mulatto” tithable in 1788.

For genealogical information on the Meggs household, see Heinegg, Free African Americans of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland, and Delaware at http://freeafricanamericans.com/Mason_Month.htm

It was also customary for a clerk to state a person’s status of birth when it occurred outside of marriage.  Terms like “illegitimate” and “bastard” where often used.  At first I could not understand why such births occurred so frequently in the Bible Belt, but I soon learned that slaves were prohibited by law from marrying, and that interracial marriages became illegal in Virginia in 1691. Thus, free people of color could legally marry only one another.

Although the law stated that an interracial couple would be banished from the Dominion forever, I did not find evidence of this happening.  In 1792 another law was enacted stating that

he or she shall be committed to prison for six months and pay $30.00 for use of the parish.  The penalty for a minister marrying Negroes and whites is set at $250 for every such marriage.

Many such laws seem to have been ignored, however, in Gloucester County. During the late 1700’s, Susanna DRIVER (Caucasian) gave birth to a mulatto bastard child. Susanna is cited several times in the vestry books in regard to her mulatto children. It appears that she was white and her spouse was of African ancestry. Prior to her husband’s death she gave birth to another child, but no reference to race was indicated in the vestry books.

The oldest free family of color that I have been able to identify in Gloucester County is the GOWEN/GOWINGS/GOINGS family.  They were the children of Michael GOWEN, born about 1635, who was the “negro” servant of Christopher STAFFORD.  STAFFORD gave him his freedom on January 18, 1654, in York County, Virginia, after four years of service. This is a fascinating family that is well documented by Paul Heinegg in his book, Free African Americans of North Carolina, Virginia, and South Carolina, at http://www.freeafricanamericans.com/Virginia_NC.htm.  Throughout this article, I draw heavily on Heinegg’s research, and I encourage you to visit this site to learn more about the genealogical history of the above families.

The ALLMOND/ALLMAN/ALMAN family is another unique family that I have encountered during my research.  Orally, I was once told that they were Native American.  The oldest members of the family that I was able to identify were Sally, Jenny, Edward, James (born about 1769), and Zachariah (born about 1775). Most records identify this family as mulatto, but they have also been described as descended from the Pamunkey Tribe of King William County, VA.

I also noticed during my research that some people of color, both slave and free, challenged their legal status in the courts. The BLUFORT/BLUEFOOT family matriarch, free woman Sarah BLUFORT, did so when she complained to the Lancaster County, VA, court that she had been sold by Matthew Green to Rawleigh Hazard.  Court records described Sarah as having been “bound” (apprenticed) to Matthew Green until the age of thirty-one. Green had sold her apprenticeship to Mr. Hazard, much as one might sell a slave. The court seems to have allowed the sale, but forbade Hazard from removing Sarah from the county, which was forbidden by law in regard to apprentices.  (Heinegg, http://www.freeafricanamericans.com/Beverly_Brogdon.htm)

The American Revolution

Years ago, I took a cruise to Nova Scotia, Canada.  We had several tour options as we docked and departed the ship.  I chose the option of visiting the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia (BCCNS). During this visit, I learned about “Black Loyalists,” (people of color who remained loyal to the British Crown during the American Revolution) who were issued “certificates of freedom” after the Americans won the war and the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783. People identified as black were given the option to relocate to Nova Scotia, the West Indies, Quebec, England, Germany and Belgium.  According to the BCCNS web site, an estimated 5,000 people of African descent chose to relocate.

Over 3,000 loyalists were recorded in Canada’s Book of Negroes, including Joseph Elliott, 30, former property of John Elliott of Gloucester County, and George Glocester, a 15-year-old boy who also escaped slavery. Three women from Gloucester County, all described by the derogatory term “stout wench,” commonly applied to slave women, were also relocated and freed: Polly Carey, 26, formerly the property of Humphrey Gwin, Elizabeth White, 25, formerly the property of John Perrin; and Sukey Smith, 25, formerly the property of Major Smith.

As I learned this history for the first time in my life, I had to ask the question, “Why did these blacks choose the British side of the war?”  Although slavery was on the wane in Canada, it was still legal there until the 1830s.  According to our tour guide, social conditions were no better for blacks than in the United States.  So why would they choose the British side?  The short answer is FREEDOM.  In November of 1775, five months after the battle of Bunker Hill, the British offered American slaves their freedom if they would support the British.  They did not make this offer because they wanted to end slavery; the British Empire itself did not abolish slavery until 1833. The British offer of freedom to American slaves was a tactical move designed to disrupt the economy of its slaveholding colonies.

If the British enticed slaves to join their cause by offering the prospect of freedom, why did other people of African descent fight for the American colonies?  At first, the Continental army did not want to enlist people of color. Eventually, however, blacks comprised an estimated 5% of Americans who fought at Bunker Hill.  In January, 1776, President George Washington allowed the enlistment of free blacks who had prior military experience.  In 1777, in desperation, the Continental army allowed both free blacks and slaves to enlist. In need of manpower, the colonists promised slaves their freedom in exchange for service. Those who fought on the Patriot side, then, also fought for African American FREEDOM.

For more on the subject of African Americans and the Revolution, see http://www.nps.gov/revwar/about_the_revolution/african_americans.html

Free people of color from Gloucester County, Virginia, served the Revolutionary cause on land and sea.  Gloucester County is a peninsula that touches the Chesapeake Bay, and many free men already made their living from the water. Some became navy seaman, while others served on land.

The DRIVER, HEARN, and MONOGGIN families appear in various Revolutionary records. These men are American heroes.  They fought in battles, and then had to fight for their pensions and other benefits long after the war was over. An example was Ephraim HEARN, a weaver who served in the Revolutionary War. Born about 1745, in 1829 Ephraim lived with his wife, Molly, and his three children, Peter, Jane, and Betsy, in Gloucester County. That year, he successfully petitioned to collect his pension from the government. As the court clerk noted on 12 August 1829:

I, Arthur S. Davies, clerk of the court of Gloucester county do hereby certify that it appears to the satisfaction of the court that the said Ephraim Hearn did serve in the Revolutionary War as stated in the preceding declaration against the common enemy for the term therein stated under one engagement on the continental establishment.

To read the entire text of Ephraim Hearn’s pension application, see http://lestweforget.hamptonu.edu/page.cfm?uuid=9FEC4EAB-B4BC-9223-A25A0AFFCD5B9824

Religious Faith

Religion, particularly Christianity, was the glue that sustained the African American community throughout its early struggles in America.  I remember traveling with my grandfather from Philadelphia to Gloucester County to attend the family church’s “Homecoming” celebrations or week-long revivals.  My grandfather, a Baptist preacher, would sometimes be invited to preach at a local church.  During those summer visits, I observed the strong convictions my relatives held about worship and fellowship.  The only time my grandmother threatened me with the switch was when I announced that I wasn’t going to church one night.  My older brother obtained the switch for her and I am still mad at him for that.  Seriously, I discovered over the years that faith has played a major role in the life of African Americans in this country.  Today, faith is what guides me daily in my life.

The noted black historian, Carter G. Woodson, Ph.D, recognized this in Free Negro Heads of Families in the United States in 1830, where he wrote that,

Negroes were not easily stirred by the doctrines of the Quakers and Presbyterians, but they flocked into the folds of the Methodists and Baptists, who won them by successfully socializing the Gospel, by popularizing the appeal with emotional preaching designed to move the illiterate to repentance.

Dr. Woodson also noted that “William Lemmon was called by a white congregation to serve at the Pettsworth or Gloucester church in Virginia.” Lemon was described by white and black contemporaries as a “lively and affecting” preacher.

Members of the LEMON family (variously spelled Lemmon, Lemmond or LeMond) have been documented as “free” since the birth of Ambrose Lemon around 1725.  William Lemon, born about 1845 in Gloucester County, was the brother or son of Ambrose.  Today, this family still maintains a strong presence in Gloucester County.  According to oral tradition, there was an area in Gloucester known as LEMON Town.  The LEMON family has a rich tradition in religion, education and business.

For more on the Lemon family’s genealogy, see Paul Heinegg’s Free African Americans of North Carolina, Virginia, and South Carolina: http://www.freeafricanamericans.com/Lemon_Lytle.htm

Land Ownership

Land was difficult to obtain during this time by poor people of any color.  I can only imagine the obstacles that stood in the way of free people of color.  Those who managed to do so were extraordinary to say the least.

Being considered “free” during a time when slavery was the norm did not always mean independence.  Owning land gave these free people of color some independence.  In his book, The Honey-pod Tree, the famous black Gloucester County lawyer Thomas Calhoun Walker, born into slavery, dedicated a chapter to his quest to educate blacks about owning land.  T. C. Walker founded a company, “The Gloucester Land and Brick Company” solely to create opportunities for blacks to own land.  He traveled from church to church and school to school to discuss the benefits of owning land and a home.  As Walker wrote:

The most effective inducement to buying a piece of land, I found, was to continue to stress the Emancipation argument: to tell the Negroes that they could never be really free until they owned their own homes.  Finally, after that conviction got well established, and the people were really awake to a sense of their duties to themselves and their families, we just let the company die.  Its purpose had been accomplished.

In 1944, historian Charles Purdue noted Thomas Calhoun Walker’s efforts in his book, The Negro in Virginia:

A consistent campaign for home and land ownership has been waged among the State’s rural Negroes for the past half century by Thomas C. Walker of Gloucester County, lawyer and former advisor to the Work Projects Administration of Virginia.  The success of his efforts is testified by the fact that, in Gloucester County, 881 of its 995 Negro families own their homes.  Of the 574 farms operated by Negroes in the county, 494 are owned by Negroes themselves.  In no county in the state, or in the Nation, is there a higher ratio of Negro farm ownership. (Virginia Writers Project, 1944, p. 365)  

When I first noticed that numerous people of color owned land in the late 18th and early 19th century, I wondered how it was possible.  I still don’t have the answer to this question, but I do admire those who were able to acquire land during this time.  The FREEMAN family clearly saw a future for their family by owning land in 1787.  The “List of the Land Tax within the District of Richard Gregory Commissioner of Gloucester County  the year 1787” noted that James FREEMAN owned 34 acres.  This land seems to have remained in the FREEMAN family throughout the next generation.  As I researched this family, it was hard to discern their race.  Some records identify this family as white, while others identity them as mulattoes.

To learn more about the genealogy of the Freeman family, see http://www.freeafricanamericans.com/Fagan_George.htm

The DRIVER, LEMON and MORRIS families are also recorded as land owners as far back as the 1782 Tax Records for Gloucester County, VA.  The MORRIS family is well documented here on Renegade South by Victoria Bynum’s “Free People of Color” in Old Virginia: The Morris Family of Gloucester County.”  My paternal great grandmother, Margaret MORRIS Driver was the daughter of Elijah MORRIS, who owned a great deal of land.  As of today, this land is still in my family.  Thank you Great Grand (2X) for this gift; I know you worked very hard to maintain our land.

Margaret Morris Driver, daughter of Elijah Morris,  wife of John Driver.

Margaret Morris Driver, daughter of Elijah Morris, wife of John Driver.

Children of Margaret Ann Morris and John Driver

Children of Margaret Ann Morris and John Driver

Professional Trades

During my years of my research, I found many free people of color who worked as skilled artisans, including as carpenters, bricklayers, blacksmiths, and shoemakers. Some excelled in their professions: the DRIVER Brothers made quality furniture.  My ancestors, Sam DRIVER and Robert DRIVER, were blacksmiths.  Matthew T. DRIVER (see photo below), one of the earliest instructors at Tuskegee University, taught wheelwrighting.  The majority of black male heads of households in Gloucester County were listed as farmers, oysterman and farm laborers, but they all knew how use their hands in one way or another.  The occupations listed for women of color included spinners, weavers, cake sellers, and one seamstress.

Matthew T. Driver

Matthew T. Driver

As a child I spent many summers with my uncle Bill DRIVER in Connecticut.  By day he was a tool maker and in his free time he dabbled in art and wood.  One summer I helped him build a coffee table.  As a person largely confined to a desk managing technology projects, I admire those who are gifted in working with their hands; they must feel a great sense of accomplishment.  The founder of Tuskegee Institute, Booker T Washington, believed that blacks should not only pursue and education, but should also know a trade—words of wisdom for all times.

For more on the lives of free families of color, see “Free People of Colour in Gloucester County, Virginia,” by Edwin B. Washington, Jr., and L. Roane Hunt.  The article can be obtained from the Gloucester Genealogical Society of Virginia at http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~vaggsv/index.htm.

CONCLUSION

My research has been very educational for me and I hope the same for you.  As you can see, I am not a professional writer and I only publish articles to share information with family and others.  As I conduct my research, I get a tiny glimpse into the past and I am encouraged by ancestors who have done remarkable things when the odds were against them.  This gives me perspective for any situation that I may come across in life.  I can only read about and imagine the hardships my ancestors incurred during their lives.  When I think about complaining, I go and do some research to get over what ails me.

There are many good sources for research, but take some time to read all the references that I have provided.  These dedicated researchers and writers have so much to share with you.

God Bless,

Wayne K Driver

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By Vikki Bynum

Here’s another region of the South with a fascinating history of mixed-race ancestry. I discovered the Chowan Discovery Group after Steven Riley, creator and moderator of Mixed Race Studies, introduced me via email to the Group’s Executive Director, Marvin T. Jones. The “Winton Triangle,” located in Hertford County, North Carolina, encompasses the three towns of Winton, Cofield, and Ahoskie. Here, people maintain a distinctive identity rooted in Native American, European, and African ancestry.

According to Marvin Jones, the Triangle traces its origins to before the 1584 arrival of the English to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where Chowanoke (Choanoac) Indian settlements were prominent along the Chowan River. After the English invasion, diseases (to which Native Americans lacked immunity) and territorial disputes decimated and disrupted the Chowanoke settlements of present-day Hertford County.*

Choanoac Village marker

During the early 1600s, England continued its relentless effort to gain a stronghold in North American, successfully planting settlements on the James River in Virginia.  Again, disease and war displaced native populations. Indians traveling down the Meherrin River eventually settled in the Chowanokes’ previous home of Hertford County, North Carolina. In the century that followed, interactions between these Native Americans and English and African immigrants would produce the mixed-ancestry people of today’s Winton Triangle.

The mixed-race people of the Winton Triangle did not live far from those of Gloucester County, Virginia, the subject of an earlier essay on this blog. In both these regions, outward migration by Europeans, funded by Crowns and merchants in search of new lands, precious metals, and cash crops, brought a collision of continents, especially those of Europe, the Americas, and Africa. Within each, there were winners and losers. Those with wealth and power benefited from expanding empires. Others, such as England’s “sturdy beggars,” were forced into indentured servitude, or, like Africa’s captured villagers, into slavery. Many Native Americans were also forced into various systems of bondage.

In the Winton Triangle, however, as in Gloucester County, a number of people designated non-white escaped slavery. Legally defined as “free people of color,” people of mixed ancestry (particularly before the American Revolution) often maintained “interdependent relations” with local whites, which enabled them to buy land and to learn marketable skills.  Equally important, they founded schools and churches and built communities of mutual support that endured the centuries.*

The Winton Triangle and Gloucester County share similar characteristics, yet each region has its own unique history. Their  common features, however, speak to the social and economic forces that shaped the Atlantic coastal history and eventually enabled England to lay claim to its Thirteen Original Colonies. Often overlooked in the panoramic history of empire and bondage in the Americas are the new peoples who emerged, and the mechanisms by which they survived, even prospered, by building tightly-knit communities amid eras of slavery, segregation, and white supremacist laws and customs imposed by the dominant society.

During the Civil War, Parker fought for the Union with the 2nd Cavalry of U.S. Colored Troops. Photo courtesy Benj. Gary Robbins and Marvin T. Jones

During the Civil War, Sgt. Parker D. Robbins fought for the Union with the 2nd Cavalry of U.S. Colored Troops. Photo courtesy Benj. Gary Robbins and Marvin T. Jones

Elf and Annie Jones Family, circa 1914. Photo courtesy of Alice Jones Nickens and Marvin T. Jones

Elf and Annie Jones Family, circa 1914. Photo courtesy of Alice Jones Nickens and Marvin T. Jones

The history of the Winton Triangle is too long and too complex to do it justice in a short essay such as this. Luckily, Marvin Jones and the Chowan Discovery Group’s Directors, Laverne Jones and Dr. Harold Mitchell (all of whom were born and raised in the Triangle), are dedicated to collecting, preserving, and presenting materials relevant to that history. They hope to coordinate their efforts with other individuals, community leaders, organizations, and institutions that share like interests. Check their organization out at Chowan Discovery Group!

*See Marvin T. Jones, “The Leading Edge of Edges: The Triracial People of the Winton Triangle,” in Carolina Genesis: Beyond the Color Lineedited by Scott Withrow (2010): 181-209.

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Some time ago, in response to my 10 November 2011 post, “Free People of Color in Old Virginia: The Morris Family of Gloucester County,”  (which I encourage you to read or reread) I received a long email message from Nathan Crowell, who traces his own mixed-heritage ancestry back to Gloucester County. Nathan shared not only his family research with me, but also certain insights that he gained over the years from listening to his ancestors—particularly his grandmother: insights into what it meant to be a “free person of color” in a slaveholding society, what it meant to be defined as “black” when one’s skin was fair. His remarks remind us that life in the Old South was far more complex than most of us realize, and that “race” was an imposed category of human existence that had no rational biological basis, but had very real legal, social, and psychological consequences that shaped the experiences and consciousness of all members of society.

With Nathan’s permission, I have created the following post from his remarks.

Vikki Bynum Moderator

Nathan Crowell on Racial Identity: Gloucester County, Virginia, revisited

My grandmother was raised in Gloucester County, Virginia, by the family of her mother. Her mother died when my grandmother was six months old. I always have been interested in her family history, and as well that of my other grandparents. So I have slowly and steadfastly attempted to learn what I can. I have traced the families of most of my grandparents back to the early 1600’s, where I found a combination of black ancestors, white ancestors, and so forth. In the process, I have learned an immense amount. I’ve seen that before the Civil War, people were incredibly mobile; they moved across counties, e.g., from Gloucester up to Campbell, and they moved across states, e.g., from Virginia to Ohio. I am from New York, and my visions of the South result from my grandparents’ narratives and my summer vacations “down home.” The South has always seemed to be static, and perpetually unchanged. The mobility of my ancestors however, clearly demonstrates that that perception is indeed erroneous.

Still, I had been taught long ago that Virginia was a major exporter of slaves to other states. While many of these slaves undoubtedly were bred just to be sold South, I understand now that there were actually thousands of slaves in Virginia at any one time; and many of the exported slaves were simply surplus from farms that had become increasingly unproductive. It was nothing more pernicious than that.

As well, I’ve come to realize that slavery was a lot more complex than I had believed. In the North, the experience is portrayed in black and white—defenseless slaves at the mercy of brutal masters. And even if that worldview is tempered, by literature from the period for example, it is still hard to internalize anything but the degradation and brutality of slavery. However, at the same time there was an intense interconnectedness among slaves, their masters, and everyone else living in the South. As a case in point, I have white relatives whose sole emotional relationship was with a slave; the uncle of one of my great, great-grandmothers, Ned Hockaday, never married a white woman, but had a good number of children with one of his slaves.  I have white relatives who had black children right alongside white ones. One of my great, great, great-grandfathers, William Hockaday, had a black son who he named Thomas, and as well, he had a white son, whom he also named Thomas. And then there are my free black ancestors, who were neighbors and possibly tenant farmers who rented land from their white ancestors. Effectively, they were living near, even with, their white cousins.

Perhaps most importantly, I’ve gained a much better understanding of who my grandmother was, and that has been very gratifying. My grandmother was very colorstruck, and growing up, I always found it to be unpleasantly odd. Again, I grew up in New York City, and in the seventies, with the emphasis on black pride and galvanizing the black community, there was no space for perceptions of superiority based on relative skin tone. As well, my grandmother was very dark, and it seemed that she took after her father, John Hamilton Boulden, who was pretty dark himself. My other grandmother, and my grandfather too, were, on the other hand, very fair–red hair, freckles, the works. And they never made any mention about skin color differences and certainly, they never seemed to attach any relative importance to lighter skin. So it was really strange to hear my grandmother go on about fair skin, good grades of hair, and so forth. I just wrote her views off as a legacy of slavery, illustrative of the sense of shame and inferiority that blacks took away from the slave experience. And given her age, it did seem logical to do so.  I see now that my grandmother’s views were a legacy of her family’s distinctive struggles as well as a byproduct of race-based slavery. I see that free blacks were just a sliver of the black community, with hundreds of them juxtaposed against thousands and thousands of slaves. And I can only imagine the intense pressure they faced in trying to distinguish themselves from those slaves, and thereby preserve their freedom, and any of the rights and privileges that it entailed. It would only make sense for them to fixate on skin color, hair texture, pedigree, and just about anything else that would help them stand apart. Thus, I think that the color prejudice that she learned was less about pride in white ancestors and disdain for African ancestors, and more an integral part of a hard-fought attempt at self-preservation.

Nathan Crowell

Note from Moderator: In the following indictment from a North Carolina court, in which a free woman of color is charged with illegally attempting to marry an enslaved man, we see one example of how the lives of free people of color were circumscribed by law:

In the following court document from antebellum North Carolina, a free woman of color is charged with illegally trying to marry a slave.

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“Always the Gentleman”: Senator Blanche K. Bruce and Newt Knight’s Relief Bill of 1880

By Ed Payne

It’s unlikely that United States Senator Blanche Kelso Bruce of Mississippi ever met Newt Knight, the man on whose behalf he submitted a bill of relief in February of 1880.  Bruce only settled within the Magnolia State in 1869 and his Delta political base in Bolivar County was a world removed from the heavily forested Piney Woods of south Mississippi where Newt Knight lived.  A state Republican probably prevailed upon the senator to perform this favor.  Still, the 1880 relief bill is emblematic of a unique point in American history when an African-American U.S. Senator born in slavery and representing a Deep South state could put forth a claim on behalf of a white man who led local opposition to Confederate authority.

Largely forgotten today, Blanche Bruce left the Senate in 1881 as the only African-American to serve a full six-year term.  He retained this distinction until Edward Brooke of Massachusetts completed his first term in 1973 (Note 1).

Senator Blanche K. Bruce of Mississippi. (Library of Congress)

Bruce was born in Prince Edward County, Virginia in 1841.  His mother, Polly, worked as a domestic slave in the household of Pettus Perkinson and his wife, Rebecca Bruce Perkinson.  Previously, Polly had been owned by Rebecca’s father, Lemuel Bruce.  In addition to having two children with his wife, Lemuel produced five children with Polly.  Since Lemuel Bruce died in 1836, it is has been assumed that Pettus Perkinson was the father of Blanche and several of his siblings.  Throughout his public career, commentators noted that Bruce’s appearance suggested a lineage that was at least three-quarters white.

Blanche Bruce grew up in a twilight world between slave and slave-owner.  He and his half-brother Henry Clay Bruce later recollected childhoods mostly removed from the harsh realities of life for field slaves.  Before their white mistress Rebecca’s early death, she and Pettus had one child together, a son named William.   Blanche, only a year younger than his white half-brother, served as William’s playmate and received instruction from the same tutor.  Following his wife’s death, Pettus Perkinson moved his household to Missouri, back to Virginia, then to Mississippi before finally re-settling in northern Missouri.  Blanche remained with William until the latter enlisted in the Confederate Army in 1861.  Only then did he make his way to Lawrence, Kansas, and thereby gain emancipation.  He became a school teacher, but after narrowly escaping the bloody raid on Lawrence led by Confederate renegade William Quantrill, moved to Hannibal, Missouri, where he established that state’s first school for African-American students.

After the Civil War, Blanche Bruce worked for a period as a porter on a steamboat plying the upper Mississippi River before resuming his education at Oberlin College in Ohio.  His scant finances did not permit him to obtain a degree and he left after a year.  But he began to hear of opportunities opening up for ambitious, educated African-Americans in the Deep South.  Changes achieved during Congressional Reconstruction included enfranchising freedmen, thereby causing a dramatic shift in the political equation.   Bruce arrived in Mississippi in February, 1869, with little more than the clothes on his back.

Blanche Bruce entered a Mississippi which had experienced a decade of warfare and social turmoil.  In the antebellum period the state’s economy centered on cotton and the slave-labor deemed necessary to produce it.  By 1860 slaves comprised 55.2% of the state population of 791,305, a percentage only exceeded by South Carolina (57.2%).  Slave ownership resided in the hands of 30,943 persons, but kinship and economic ties produced a much larger circle of those dependent upon the Peculiar Institution.  Nevertheless, as elsewhere in the South, there were regions of sparse slave ownership, usually hilly lands not conducive to plantation agriculture.  Mississippi had two such areas: the northeast corner of the state and the Piney Woods.

Following close on the heels of South Carolina, Mississippi seceded from the Union in 1861 and began mobilizing for war.  A minority of citizens retained loyalty to the Union, but soon found it prudent to keep such views to themselves.  Thousands of young men joined military companies which formed in the spring and summer of 1861.  Those less infected with martial ardor and with families dependent on their labor, rather than that of slaves, often did not enlist until confronted with passage of the Confederacy’s first Conscription Act in April of 1862.

By summer of 1863, Union troops had penetrated the interior of the state and on July 4, after a 47 day siege, captured Vicksburg and gained control of the Mississippi River.   A number of Confederate soldiers who lacked an economic stake in slavery decided they had done their duty and returned to their small farms.  In desperate need of manpower, Confederate troops made periodic attempts to round up these deserters and compel them back into service.  In some cases they were met with armed resistance.  Newt Knight’s compensation claim stemmed from such circumstances.

The war ended in April 1865, having devastated the state’s economy and resulted in the death of approximately 25,000 of its men.  But political leaders conceded little beyond military defeat.  That fall legislators, unnerved by a majority population of newly free slaves and heedless of Northern opinion, passed the South’s first Black Codes.  These codes sought to retain many of the legal and social restraints of slavery.  They and other evidence of Southern intransigence galvanized Northern voters, who increased Republican strength in the Congressional elections of 1866.  Congress subsequently imposed Military Reconstruction across the South.

General Adelbert Ames, a native of Maine, was appointed provision governor of Mississippi.  He implemented the Congressional mandates to remove ex-Confederates from offices and to assemble a convention to draft a new state constitution—one which repealed the Black Codes and enfranchised freedmen.  Ames assumed leadership of the state’s radical Republican faction.  However, his uncompromising policies generated growing animosity among moderate Republicans led by former slave-owner turned scalawag James L. Alcorn.

Bruce arrived amid this political maelstrom and quickly came to the attention of Alcorn, then campaigning for governor.   True to rumors that led him to the state, Bruce found quick entrée into Republican politics.  Alcorn won the governorship and supported Bruce in obtaining the post of Sergeant-at-Arms in the Mississippi legislature.  The legislature elected Ames as U.S. Senator, with moderate Republicans no doubt delighted to see him relocated to Washington, D.C.  (Until 1913 U.S. Senators were chosen by state legislatures rather than by popular vote.)

Governor Alcorn next named Bruce as tax assessor for Bolivar County, in the fertile Mississippi Delta.  Since tax assessors received a 7% commission, it promised to be a lucrative post.  African-Americans composed 80% of the county’s population, while land ownership remained concentrated in the hands of white planters.  The planters resented Republican efforts to shift more of the tax burden onto their shoulders.  Inserted into this volatile environment, Bruce proved to be honest, industrious, and a model of tact.   So much so that within a short time several white planters came forward to post the $15,000 bond necessary for Bruce to run for the combined office of county Sheriff and Tax Collector.  Bruce won the election and also received an appointment as county superintendent of education. In the latter role he achieved notable improvements in the Bolivar County school system and managed to convince key planters that a labor force with at least rudimentary education would be more productive.

Over the course of a few short years Bruce proved himself to be what many white Southerners emphatically insisted could not exist: an energetic, educated, and efficient African-American public official.  Historian William C. Harris noted:

“In view of the political and racial hostilities of the postwar South and the continuation of the white-dominated plantation economy in the Delta, [Bruce’s] success in allaying local planter fears was a remarkable achievement.”

Planter confidence in Bruce further increased when, in 1874, his growing prosperity enabled him to purchase 640 acres of land and establish his own plantation operation.

The careful efforts of Bruce to maintain cordial relations with both the moderate and radical factions of his party ended during the 1874 gubernatorial race.  In November 1871 James Alcorn resigned his post of governor to serve as a U.S. Senator alongside his nemesis Adelbert Ames.   The two men returned to Mississippi in early 1873 to battle for political dominance in the governor’s race.  The Alcorn moderates sought a biracial constituency, whereas the Ames radicals felt they could win by solely appealing to the state’s black majority—a constituency who had grown suspicious of the moderates’ intensions.  With both candidates offering serious enticements to garner Bruce’s support, he was forced into a decision.  He sided with the Ames faction.

As Bruce had correctly deduced, overwhelming support from African-American voters, combined with sullen non-participation by many whites, allowed Ames to defeat Alcorn.  Bruce had made his ambitions known and in February of 1874 claimed his reward when the Republican dominated legislature elected him as U.S. Senator.  His term did not commence until thirteen months later in March of 1875.

Bruce hardly had time to savor his victory before his power-base within the state began to crumble.  Sensing that Northern commitment to Reconstruction was waning, Mississippi Democrats made an all-out push for power during the summer of 1875, combining appeals for white racial solidarity with a well-organized campaign of voter intimidation.  A mere eight months after Bruce took his seat in the Senate, the November 1875 elections effectively ended Republican control at the county and statewide level.  Faced with a bill of impeachment, Governor Adelbert Ames negotiated his resignation from office in March of 1876 and left the state.

Senator Bruce sought to reverse the tide by supporting a Congressional investigation of the 1875 Mississippi elections and protesting the removal of federal troops at a time of increasing racial violence in the state.  But these efforts yielded no concrete results.  Turning his attention to more productive avenues, Bruce consistently supported claims for pensions and bounties due African-American soldiers and their families for Union service.  He aided his region through membership on the Committee on the Improvement of the Mississippi River and its Tributaries.  In 1879 he spoke out against the Chinese Exclusion Bill, noting his “large confidence in the strength and assimilative powers of our institutions.”  Ever the voice of conciliation, he formed a mutually cordial relationship with L.Q.C. Lamar—the man who had drafted the Mississippi Ordinance of Secession and was elected junior Senator by the now Democrat-controlled state legislature in 1877.

Given his support of Civil War claims on behalf of African-Americans veterans, his Republican Party affiliation, and perhaps also his lame duck status, Senator Bruce seemed a logical choice to introduce the Newt Knight claim in 1880.  Not being a member of the Committee on Claims, however, he could do little more.

Blanche Bruce had a mixed reputation among African-Americans during and after his senatorial term.  His mild manner and amiable disposition did not compare favorably with the strident oratory of his contemporary Frederick Douglass.  After his marriage in 1878 to Josephine Wilson, a light-skinned African-American socialite, the black press charged that Bruce seemed more interested in advancing into white high society than addressing the plight of African-Americans in the South.  William C. Harris noted:

“Ever the harmonizer, Bruce refused to admit, what the black masses and their local leaders knew, that the Reconstruction dream of black assimilation into white American society had died with the collapse of Reconstruction in the South and the abandonment of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments to the Constitution.”

Facing the loss of his political base in Mississippi, Bruce cultivated Republican Party connections in Washington, D.C.  After his senatorial term ended in 1881, he gained a presidential appointment as Register of the Treasury.  Bruce noted with delight and satisfaction that his signature now appeared on U.S. paper currency.  He later opened a law practice and lectured widely on racial matters.  During two Republican administrations Bruce served as Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia, the position he held when he died of diabetes on 17 March 1898.

Blanche K. Bruce, Frederick Douglass, and Hiram R. Revels, “Heroes of the Colored Race,” 1881 lithography (Library of Congress)

A eulogy published in The Colored American delineated the ambiguous legacy Bruce left within the African-American community:

“His strong point as a politician lay in the fact that he was a consummate strategist, one who made politics the study of his life, and who applied all the arts known to practical politics to compass his ends . . . . He was the personification of courtesy and courtliness, and his well known tact in emergencies saved him from many embarrassments.  These qualities endeared him to white men, particularly those who believe that the Negro has a place and should keep it.  Mr. Bruce was not an aggressive leader.  He believed rather in moral suasion and the arts of diplomacy… (Frederick) Douglass and (John M.) Langston were his superiors in intellect and scholarship, but he was a better politician than either…”

The Deep South where he first rose to power had embraced the policies of Jim Crow segregation and disfranchisement of African-Americans.  Nevertheless, the Raymond, Mississippi, Hinds County Gazette felt the obligation to note Bruce’s passing and describe him as “always the gentleman, graceful, polished, self-assured and never humble.”

Note 1:  Two notable African-American contemporaries of Blanche K. Bruce were Hiram R. Revels and John Roy Lynch.  Hiram R. Revels completed the unexpired senatorial term of Jefferson Davis and John Roy Lynch was elected to three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.  Against Southern Reconstruction stereotypes, all three were conceded even by hostile contemporaries as highly capable.  After John Roy Lynch presided as Speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives in 1872, it was a white Democrat who moved for the adoption of a resolution in his honor.  The Jackson, Mississippi Clarion observed, “His bearing in office has been so proper, and his ruling in such marked contrast to the partisan conduct of the ignoble whites of his party… that the conservatives cheerfully joined in the testimonial.”  Lynch later authored The Facts of Reconstruction.  [Clarion quote from James Wilford Garner, Reconstruction in Mississippi (New York: MacMillan, 1901), 296.]

Sources:

The most thorough scholarly assessment of the life of Blanche K. Bruce is Sadie Daniel St. Clair, “The National Career of Blanche Kelso Bruce” (PhD diss., New York University, 1947).  Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertation Express. (AAT 0000938).

Other academic studies include William C. Harris, “Blanche K.  Bruce of Mississippi: Conservative Assimilationist,” in Southern Black Leaders of the Reconstruction Era, ed. Howard N. Rabinowitz (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1982), 3-38; Melvin I. Urofsky, “Blanche K. Bruce: United States Senator, 1875-1881,” Journal of Mississippi History, Vol 29, No 2 (May, 1967), 118-141; Kenneth Eugene Mann, “Blanche Kelso Bruce: United States Senator without a constituency,” Journal of Mississippi History, Vol 38, No 2 (May, 1976), 183-198.

A recent popular account of the life of Blanche K. Bruce, his wife, and their descendants is Lawrence Otis Graham, The Senator and the Socialite (New York: Harper, 2006).

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The following guest post by Sondra Yvonne Bivins presents her latest research on various Knight family lines of Piney Woods Mississippi. Thanks to Yvonne’s gathering of family stories and research into primary documents, we have a much deeper knowledge of the often hidden histories of  the multiracial South, and particularly the experiences of enslaved women. If you haven’t already, be sure and read her histories of Vernon Dahmer, Rachel Knight (in three parts),and the Ainsworth-Smith-Knight lines of Mississippi.

Vikki Bynum, Moderator

The Family Origins of Harriet Carter Ward

By Sondra Y. Bivins

Introduction

For Black families, oral tradition has been a vital component of family history research.  In the tradition of the African Griot, stories about “the old days” were passed on to younger generations as forms of entertainment mostly in the evenings after supper.  These sessions could be quite entertaining, because normally children were not allowed to hang around when “grown folks talked.”

Alex Haley, author of the successful novel, Roots: Saga of an American Family, relied heavily on the family history of his ancestor, Kunta Kinte, as the basis for his research.  Like Alex Haley, the Knights of Soso, Mississippi, have passed on the story of their matriarch, Harriet Carter Ward and her children.  A few years ago, I discovered a pamphlet compiled for one of their family reunions that included the following about Harriet:

As a young girl, she was taken from her parents and sold to John “Jackie” Knight.  She had [taken] the name Carter from her previous owner. At a very early age, she gave birth to five children fathered by Daniel Knight.  Harriet and her five children remained on the plantation until after the War Between the States.

Photos From brochure of Ward and Knight Family Reunion, 1999

This pamphlet also listed the names of her children, so I used this as the basis for beginning my research.  Looking through this pamphlet, I remembered many of the names and places from stories that I heard when I was a child.

I have found that over the years, facts may be altered or embellished with each retelling of a family story. Given its retelling over the years, the family story about Harriet, as with most family stories, is not 100 percent accurate; however, it is rich in details.

To Be a Slave

I don’t need to pay anybody to tell me about where we came from. Our family tree ends in a bill of sale. Lester is the name of the family that owned us.

Julius Lester, To Be a Slave, 1968

Harriet’s story begins on the plantation of John “Jackie” Knight in Covington County, Mississippi, in the fall of 1846.  John “Jackie” Knight was a small time slave trader and planter whose land was located on both sides of the Leaf River in Covington and Jones County. At the time of his death in 1861, four months before the firing of guns at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, triggered the American Civil War, Jackie owned between 22 and 40 slaves.

Although Jackie Knight was considered to be a so-called “good master” who treated his slaves humanely, life for his slaves was nevertheless difficult.  He did not beat them without cause or work them half to death.  His former slave Martha Wheeler remembered him as kind and good.  Of course, she was just seven years old when he died, but she remembered her father’s and mother’s stories about him. * He was a typical white man who treated his slaves like children and honestly believed that they were better off enslaved because it was for “their own good.”

Between 1850 and 1860, Jackie Knight became one of the richest farmers in the Jones County area.  The 1860 federal manuscript slave schedule shows that he owned 22 slaves who lived in six slave houses (family traditions cite many more). Individuals were not named but were simply numbered and distinguished only by age, sex, and color.  Among these slaves were:

  • 1 black female, age 36 (Phyllis, Harriet’s mother)
  • 1 black female, age 17, female (possibly mother of Claiborne Graves)
  • 1 black female, age 14 (Harriet Carter)
  • 1 black male, age 7 (Claiborne Graves)

On September 4, 1860, John “Jackie” Knight made his “Last Will and Testament,” in which he disbursed the following slave property:

To my daughter Altimarah Brumfield I do will and bequeath a certain Negro girl named Harriet on her paying to the estate two hundred dollars . . . .

 Jackie Knight died on January 9, 1861. His estate was auctioned on March 18, 1861, and his heirs successfully kept his slaves in the family. According to Martha Wheeler, the last three slaves were bought by John Knight’s daughter-in-law, Elizabeth Coleman Knight.

Harriet Carter’s parents were Andy Carter and Phyllis Knight.  Phyllis was a field hand slave of Jackie Knight.  According to former librarian Kenneth Welch, co-author with Jan Sumrall of Knights and Related Families (1985), the Rev. E. L. Carter, a neighbor of John Knight, was the likely owner of Andy.  Andy Carter apparently died before 1870 as he is not listed on the 1870 and 1880 census records for either Covington or Jones County.

Like her mother, Harriet was a strong, powerfully built, heavyset woman with jet black skin and kinky hair. She never learned to read and write because it was against the law for slaves.  As soon as she reached the age of twelve, Harriet joined her parents and the rest of the slaves in the field.  They worked from sunrise to sunset, with an hour off during the hot summer months. During harvest time, they worked an eighteen-hour day. Field slaves were fed once a day with whatever Jackie Knight chose to give them. They supplemented their diet with whatever they could catch or grow, i.e. raccoons, catfish, and vegetables from a small garden near the cabin.

The summer before Harriet reached her thirteenth year, while she was working in Jackie Knight’s field, his 20-year-old grandson, Dan Knight, took an interest in her. Harriet was powerless to refuse his advances and soon became pregnant with a son who she named after her father, Andy. Slave women had no legal rights over their bodies; Dan could do with her what he pleased. For him, taking Harriet “to the woods” was a simple rite of passage. Although racial mixing was prohibited by law, such laws did nothing to deter the sexual abuse of slave women on plantations.

John Knight’s daughter, Altimarah Brumfield, inherited Harriet in March 1861, a month before Harriet gave birth.  George Brumfield, Altamarah’s husband, owned property located in Covington County, next door to Jackie Knight’s place. At her new home, Harriet worked in the field right up until she delivered Andy Knight in April 1861. After giving birth, she continued to work the in the field, during which time she would leave Andy with one of the old people on the farm.

While Dan Knight was away serving in the Confederacy, Harriet developed a relationship with one of the Brumfield’s slaves, which resulted in the birth of her second son, Joseph Samuel Broomfield, born in January 1865.  Meanwhile, according to family history, Dan Knight resumed his sexual exploitation of Harriet after being discharged from military service and returning to Jones County. Although he married his cousin, Lizzie Knight, around May 1864, he fathered several children by Harriet after the war had ended: Sam was born in September 1867, Joanne in August 1869, and Mary Lee in August 1871. Harriet also had a daughter, Cecile, whose name appears in a journal of births, deaths, and marriages kept by the late Sidney Knight (the journal is now in possession of Florence Knight Blaylock).

It should be noted here that Dan’s father, Jesse Davis Knight, was the father of three of Rachel Knight’s children, born while she was a slave on Jackie Knight’s plantation.

By 1870, Harriet and her children were living in the Soso area of Jones County, Mississippi.  The Jones County census of August 8, 1870, shows that Andy was nine, Joe was five, and Sam was three years old.  Samuel was the only one in the household described as a mulatto (bi-racial).  Harriet was listed without occupation, residing in the home of her mother, Phyllis Knight. At the time of this enumeration, Phyllis was 50 years old.  She was described as a black female whose occupation was “keeping house,” meaning that she did not work outside the home. She owned personal property valued at $200 (the equivalent of about $3400 in 2010) and real estate valued at $40 (the equivalent of about $640 in 2010).

Phyllis’s household was large. It included Harriet Carter, a black female, age 24, and several grandchildren ranging from age 11 to age 3. The children were Claiborne [Graves], age 11; Isaac [?], age 10; Andy [Knight], age 9; Lewis [Graves] age 7; Jackson [Graves], age 6; Joseph [Brumfield], age 5; and Samuel [Knight], age 3. According to Pearline Musgrove Knight, Claiborne, Lewis, and Jackson Graves were Harriet’s nephews.  Their father was a slave whose surname was Graves (possibly owned by Robert Graves whose grandson, Ben Graves, later bragged in an interview that his grandfather once paid $10 a pound for a slave.) All members of the household were listed as born in Mississippi.

In June 1880, Phyllis and her family still lived in Jones County, Mississippi, in the area of present-day Soso. Everyone in the household (dwelling #119) was using the surname Knight.  Apparently, Harriet was unsure of her age because she had only aged six years from the time of the last census.  This census shows a Fellis Nite [sic], a black female, age 56, living with her daughter, Harriet Nite, age 37, and using the Nite [sic] surname.  The following grandchildren lived in the household:  Clabe [Graves], age 20; Jackson, age 18; Lewis, age 17; Andy, age 16; Joseph, age 15; Joanne (Musgrove), age 10; Mary (Coleman), age 6; Emaline (?), age 4; and Bell (Ward), age 2.  Living next door were Isaac Jackson (Isaac Jackson is the same Isaac “Ike” Ward discussed below) age 26, born in Alabama, and Sam Knight, age 12.

In the same Jones County neighborhood was Celia Bruce (Andy Knight’s mother-in-law), who was born in South Carolina.  The Bruce’s had previously been enslaved by Simpson Bruce and still lived and worked on his place. The Bruce household included John, Cherry, Rose (Rose Ann), Jane (Jennie), and Bose.

Isaac “Ike” Ward

 After the births of Bell in 1878 and Matilda in about 1880, Harriet entered into a common-law marriage with Ike Ward around 1882. Back then, if a man and woman moved in together and identified themselves as husband and wife, by law the marriage was legal even though there had been no license or ceremony.

Family tradition says that Ike Ward was born a slave in Alabama to “an Irishman and an African.”  He was very handsome with straight black hair. Ike’s mother, Chanie Dean, is described by a family member as very dark-skinned, tiny woman with short kinky hair.

In the summer of 1870, 13-year-old Ike was living in the area that is now Soso, Mississippi, with his stepfather, Abraham “Abe” Dean, and his mother, Chanie.  The family lived next door to William Jackson, a 29-year-old white farmer from Alabama who owned their land and, before the war, had owned Abe Dean. The Dean household included the following:

  1. Abraham Deen – age 45 – b. in Alabama
  2. China Deen – age 35 – b. in Alabama
  3. Isaac Deen – age 13 – b. in Alabama (Ike Ward)

In June 1880, Abe and Chanie lived in the same area of Jones County in Beat 2. Near them was W. R. Jackson and, in fact, they were using the surname of Jackson.  The 1880 census records shows that Phyllis and Harriet Knight lived only two dwellings away.  As noted above, Ike Ward, (listed by the census enumerator as Isaac Jackson), age 26, and Sam Knight, a 12-year-old mulatto boy, lived together in a house located between those of the Deans and Knights.

In 1882, shortly before Ike and Harriet entered into a common law marriage, Ike fathered a child named Rushia by Rose Holifield. Rose was born a slave in January, 1845, in South Carolina. In 1880, she lived near Ike on a farm owned by John “Mat” Musgrove, the brother-in-law of her former slavemaster, Jonathan Holifield. Mat Musgrove was the father of Rose’s children: Sam, age 13; Frank, age 11; Jack, age 8; John, age 5; and Bija, age 3, although they had not yet begun using the surname Musgrove at the time the 1880 census was taken. (In 1887, Mat Musgrove was killed while breaking into a store in Sandersville. The Musgrove family says that he was accidentally shot by the owner, who mistook him for a burglar; others think that the murder was neither an accident nor a mistake.)

On May 20, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act. This act granted 160 acres of surveyed public land to poor settlers after payment of a filing fee and five years of continuous residence. After Lincoln’s assassination, President Andrew Johnson opposed freedmen participation in the Homestead program.  A strong believer in white superiority and black inferiority, President Johnson was dedicated to maintaining a white man’s government. His racial attitudes, shared by many whites, made it very difficult for blacks to obtain land. To become a landowner, former slaves generally needed the assistance and approval of white neighbors, former owners, or white relatives because few homesteads were granted to black claimants.

After hard work, Ike was able to take advantage of the Homestead Act.  On December 30, 1884, he purchased with cash 40.13 acres of land in Jones County, MS.  Six years later, he filed a homestead claim for 160.25 acres of land in the same county.  Several of his relatives followed his lead and became landowners, too.  Andy Knight homesteaded 165 acres in 1892; Jackson Graves, 123 acres in 1895; Lewis Graves, 164 acres in l895; William Dean, 159 acres in 1896; Sam Knight, 41 acres in 1897 and Frank Musgrove, 162 acres in 1901.

The 1900 federal manuscript census for Jones County, Mississippi, shows Ike and Harriet Ward having been married for 18 years and still living in Beat 2 of Soso. Ike gave his birthdate as December 1855; Harriet gave hers as October 1846. Harriet stated that she was the mother of 15 children with 13 still living as of June 1900.  Included in their household were Belle age 21; Frank age 12; Hettie age 14;  Jessie,  age 12; Phyllis age 11;and  Nellie Jane age 8.  Also in the household was William Barnes age 20.

In 1910, Ike and Harriet lived on the Laurel-Soso Road in Soso, Mississippi,  (census dwelling #401)  Ike could neither read nor write, and was a self-employed farmer. Still living with them were Jessie, male age 21; Phyllis, female, age 19; and Nellie, female, age 19.  Also living with them were two grandsons: John Knight, age 19 and Tim Knight, age 18.  Tim and John attended school.  Living next door to Ike and Harriet were Floyd and Lucy Ainsworth Knight and Frank and Leavy Smith Ward.

The marriage of Harriet Carter and Ike Ward endured some forty-five years, ended only by their deaths. In January, 1927, Harriet contracted pneumonia and passed away the following month, on February 6.  She was buried in the cemetery at the Mt. Vernon Baptist Church in Soso, Mississippi. Six years later, in 1933, Ike died and was buried next to Harriet.

_______________

*Martha Wheeler’s stories about the Knight family are contained in the published ex-slave narratives and the unpublished papers of the 1930s Works Projects Administration (WPA) for Mississippi.

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Littlefield Lecture poster

The Littlefield Lectures, UT Austin

I’m delighted to announce that I’ll be delivering this year’s Littlefield Lectures for the History Department of the University of Texas, Austin.  The lectures are based on research from my last two books, The Free State of Jones, and The Long Shadow of the Civil War:
“The Free State of Jones: Community, Race, and Kinship in Civil War Mississippi,” March 6, 4-6 p.m., Avaya Auditorium, ACE 2.302

“Communities at War”: Men, Women, and the Legacies of Anti-Confederate Dissent,” March 7, 4-6 p.m., Avaya Auditorium, ACE 2.302

If you’re in the area, I hope to see you there!

Vikki Bynum

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Back in 1977, when I was a junior in college, history became a personal venture for me when an African American friend told me that his ancestors were from Virginia, but that he had always heard that they were not slaves. African Americans from Old Virginia who had never been slaves? That got my attention!

 A brand new history major, I decided on the spot to research my friend’s family history. Soon I was delving into microfilmed and published records from colonial Middlesex and Gloucester Counties of Virginia, where I did indeed find the ancestors of my friend—and many more—living as “free people of color” in colonial and antebellum Virginia. The following is their story.  

Vikki Bynum

During the transformative years of 1680-1730, as slavery overtook servitude as the favored system of labor among planters in the English colonies of America, a small but significant population of free people of color emerged in Virginia’s Gloucester and Middlesex Counties. We know very little about their individual lives beyond their names, racial designations, and ages as recorded in church and court records. We know, for example, that Elizabeth Morris, a servant of Middlesex County, was of mixed ancestry because the vestry book of Christ Church Parish described her in 1706 as “A Mulatto Woman.” (Note 1)

That same vestry book identified Elizabeth’s white master and mistress as “gentleman” Francis Weeks and his wife, Elizabeth. The Weeks family owned a number of slaves, raising questions about why Elizabeth was not also enslaved. Perhaps her mother was also a servant, or perhaps Elizabeth was the child of an enslaved woman and a white slave master who subsequently freed her.

Long before the rise of the cotton South in the post-Revolutionary United States, people of European, African, and Native American ancestry struggled against systems of bondage in the American colonies. In the first half of the seventeenth century, as tobacco profits flourished, settlers in Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay region took advantage of England’s head-right system to build vast plantations. For every person that they brought to America–including those held in bondage–fifty acres of land was granted. Although servants were entitled to collect their fifty acres of “freedom dues” after fulfilling labor contracts, high death rates allowed many planters to add those acres to their own burgeoning estates.

The same high death rates made the purchase of slaves a risky venture; transporting servants was the safer investment. Thus, although not enslaved, many seventeenth-century whites entered the New World in bondage. By 1681, there were some 15,000 mostly-white indentured servants in Colonial Virginia, compared to some 3,000 African slaves. That would soon change, however. In 1676, Bacon’s Rebellion graphically revealed the potential for revolution among the servant class. As more and more servants lived long enough to press their claims for land, Virginia planters turned to slavery as a more controllable and profitable system of labor.

Map of Virginia highlighting Gloucester County

As slaves increased in number, so also did Virginia lawmakers’ efforts to construct a bi-racial society that clearly differentiated among people on the basis of their race as well as status. An Act of Assembly, enforced in 1715, directed that individuals of African ancestry be labeled as such. A clerk of the Abingdon Parish of Gloucester noted in that church’s records that “A list of negros [sic] born in the Parish” was now required by law. Before 1715, he explained, “negros” had been listed “promiscuously among the whites.”  (Note 2)

Abingdon Episcopal Church, White Marsh, Gloucester County, Donated by Frances Benjamin Johnston.

But even in this deliberately bi-racial society, a third category of race and status intruded: that of free person of color, with “color” often meaning light brown. Elizabeth Morris’s designation as a “Mulatto,” which technically meant half African, half European, should not be taken literally. Virginia officials used the term rather loosely; it might mean that an individual was born to a mixed-race couple, or simply that one or both parents were of mixed ancestry. Mainly, it meant that a person’s skin was lighter in tone than that of enslaved Africans being forced into the colony in ever greater numbers.

Elizabeth may have had connections to the white Morris family that was among the earliest to settle this region of Virginia. Thomas Morris was clerk of Gloucester County in 1657 and 1661, while Richard Morris was minister of Christ Church Parish upon its establishment in 1666. Another Morris, George, surveyed lands for building the parish.

The birth years of Elizabeth’s children make it likely that she herself was born between 1670 and 1690. During those years, Thomas Morris’s two sons, James and Thomas Jr., owned 670 acres of land that they inherited from their father. Any of the above men might have fathered Elizabeth, or once held her as a slave. Or, perhaps there was a daughter or sister who engaged in an interracial affair that resulted in her birth. (Note 3)

One thing is certain: Elizabeth is the earliest identified ancestor of the free Morrises of color from whom my friend descended. Whether or not she was ever enslaved, it’s also certain that this “Mulatto Woman” lived during a volatile period of early Virginia history. As English settlers struggled to dominate the New World, they discovered that white indentured servants, slaves, and Indians could be a dangerous mix. In 1663, more than a decade before Bacon’s Rebellion rocked the colony, an uprising known as the “Servants Plot” was narrowly averted in Gloucester County.

Servants Plot Marker

Betrayed from within by an indentured servant, the Servants’ Plot was brutally quashed. Literally, heads rolled, their bloody stumps posted atop chimneys in gruesome displays reminiscent of the Old World’s London Bridge. Yet again, in 1722, threats of insurrections by slaves and free people of color re-emerged in the region of Gloucester and Middlesex Counties. Rumors of uprisings ignited the fears of whites, who responded with passage of draconian laws.

In 1724, Virginia lawmakers decreed that “Negroes, mulattoes, and Indians, bond or free,” convicted of fomenting conspiracies or insurrections would “suffer death and be Utterly excluded the benefit of Clergy and all laws made concerning the same.” Unsupervised meetings were forbidden among all “Negroes or other slaves.” Slaves “notoriously guilty” of running away could be ordered by the court “to be punished by Dismembering Or any Other Way not touching Life.” (Note 4)

Land rich and labor poor, white masters, including several Morrises, rapidly replaced unruly servants with chattel slaves. Between 1770 and 1782, William Morris, white, of Petsworth Parish owned 99 acres and five slaves; in neighboring Mathews County, a William Morris, Sr., white, owned 343 ½ acres and ten slaves. (Note 5)

Rosewell Plantation Ruins, Gloucester Co. Built in 1725 for planter Mann Page, this mansion of Flemish bond brickwork was patterned after the elaborate London homes of the era.

As a result, Elizabeth Morris’s children and grandchildren would grow up in a world increasingly defined by slavery. Although they were not themselves slaves, neither were they fully free. For several generations, they or their children remained in a cycle of servitude.

Servants, like slaves, were forbidden by law to marry, which increased the number of illicit births among them. Elizabeth’s pregnancy violated the terms of her indenture contract and resulted in her children being born into servitude. Between courthouse and church, the new family was alternately blessed and condemned. On March 15, 1705/06, Christ Church baptized Elizabeth’s newborn son, James Morris, while the Middlesex county court ordered its sheriff to administer 25 lashes to Elizabeth’s bare back as punishment. A year later, the process was repeated. Her newborn daughter Winnefred, born May 9, 1707, was baptized by Christ Church, while the court once again ordered the mother whipped for giving birth out of wedlock.

And so it went. Like her children, Elizabeth’s grandchildren were indentured, beginning when daughter Winnie gave birth to her own daughter, Biddy, at age fifteen. A second daughter, Betty, was born in 1728, but died less than a year later. By 1742, Winnie had three sons: Francis, George, and James. (Two other children, Thomas, born 1843, and William, born 1845, were likely sons of Winnie’s older brother, James Morris.)

Five years before her death in 1745 at the age of thirty-seven, Winnie was identified in the records as a free woman. Still, her children remained in servitude. Sons George and James were ordered “bound out” by the courts after Virginia’s race-based laws required that all “Mulattos and Indians” be apprenticed, or bound, to a master until age 31, regardless of their mother’s status. This apprenticeship system was adopted widely throughout the South, although the ages of release were lowered to 21 for males and 18 for females during the nineteenth century.  Until after the Civil War, apprenticeship functioned as a system for socially and economically controlling free people of color. (Note 6)

As they “aged” their way into freedom, the Morrises intermarried with other free families of color—notably those with the surnames of Lockley, Driver, Lemon, Blufoot (Blueford), and  Thias—and built large families. By the late eighteenth century, members from these families were landowners. By 1799, “Mulattoes” James and Seth Morris together paid taxes on forty acres of land. By 1821, James was deceased, and Seth Morris was the sole owner of the forty acres. (Note 7)

During the same years, Virginia slaveholders pushed for greater restrictions on free people of color. In 1793, the state required that “free negroes or mulattoes” register their status with the town clerk. Failure to do so could result in imprisonment. In 1806, it forbade them the right to bear arms without a license (after the Nat Turner Rebellion  of 1831, the right even to obtain a license was denied). How, one wonders, did men feed their families without the ability to hunt animals? Even the major occupation of Gloucester free men of color—netting oysters—was compromised by restrictive laws. In 1811, the legislature passed a law stating that:

Any waterman of color found strolling from his boat may be whipped any number of lashes, not exceeding twenty, if he is not going directly to or from any spring for the purpose of getting water.  (Note 8)

And so, as the nineteenth century progressed, the Morrises endured the indignities that accompanied the antebellum South’s evolving caste system. In December 1822, the registration papers of “William Morris, a free tawney man, no. 44,” and “Deanna Morris, a free mulatto woman, no. 45,” were examined by the court, and “found to be truly made.” The couple had passed muster and could continue to live in the conditional freedom accorded people of their status. (Note 9)

William’s racial designation, “tawney,” indicated a skin tone lighter than that of a “Mulatto” or “black” person. In 1823, Betty Morris and Mary Morris were likewise described by the court as tawney, while Lucy Morriss and Warner Morris were described as Mulattoes. No matter how light their skin, however, the Morrises would never be considered “white”; at least, not as long as they remained in Gloucester County, where officials knew the family’s racially-mixed background.

The forced apprenticeship of free children of color continued until after the Civil War. In the years following the Nat Turner rebellion, however, there was much talk of removing all “free Negroes” from the commonwealth, in which case, contracts specified, the apprenticeship would be voided.  By 1838, however, that plan no longer appeared feasible, and the caveat was dropped. (Note 10)

After May, 1838, a typical apprenticeship contract was that of “free boy” Lewis Morris. In February, 1840, Lewis was ordered bound to Robert P. Russell “until he attains the age of 21 years to learn the art . . .  of a shoemaker. And it is ordered that he keep said boy until he is fifteen years of age free of charge and to pay thereafter $10 a year and furnish him with an extra suit of clothes the last year of his apprenticeship.” Russell would thus benefit for years from the free labor of Lewis, depriving his mother, Winney Morris, of both the labor and companionship of her child.  (Note 11)

Though rare, apprenticeship contracts were sometimes successfully challenged by parents. In March, 1840, just one month after her son Lewis was ordered apprenticed to Robert Russell, Winney Morris managed to have the contract rescinded “for reasons appearing to the court.” Unfortunately, the court did not identify those reasons.

Twenty years later, also on unspecified grounds, Lucy Morriss challenged the legality of her twelve-year-old son Phillip’s apprenticeship to Isaac Woodland. In November, 1860, the court summoned Woodland to appear in its chambers “to show cause if any he can why the indenture of the said apprentice should not be revoked & annulled.” The outcome of that suit is uncertain, but it may be that the sectional crisis between North and South had begun to disrupt local communities, making apprenticeship contracts harder to enforce. (Note 12)

We do know the outcome of a suit against Tom Morris, a “free boy of color.” Like many a servant boy before him, Tom played hooky from his master’s home. From August until October, 1860, Henry Rilee lodged accusations that Tom had “deserted the service of said master.” The court ordered the missing boy to appear at its December term to answer charges. Tom, however, did not show up in court–not in December, and not in January, 1861, either, when he was ordered again to appear. By 1861 the South’s secession from the Union loomed on the horizon, and lawmakers may have concluded they had far more to worry about than the whereabouts of one rebellious teenage boy. In a decision that surely must have pleased young Tom, the court dropped Rilee’s case and ordered Tom Morris’s apprenticeship “revoked and annulled.”

The Civil War and Reconstruction soon revolutionized the world of free people, slaveholders, and slaves. The existence of the slaveholding South’s free people of color, like that of its Southern Unionists, was forgotten by many people.  In modern-day Gloucester County, however, the history of  the Morris family’s distant ancestors survived in the long-held tradition that “we were never slaves.”

Victoria E. Bynum

Follow-up posts: January 15, 2013, “Nathan Crowell on Racial Identity: Free People of Color in Old Virginia revisited.”;

Wayne K. Driver, ” ‘Free Negroes’ and ‘Mulattoes’ in Gloucester County and the Tidewater Area of Virginia prior to 1800.”

NOTES:

1. C. G. Chamber, compiler, Vestry Book of Christ Church Parish, Middlesex County, VA, 1663-1767 (Richmond: Old Dominion Press, 1927), p. 58.  (Hereafter cited as Christ Church Parish.)

2. Abingdon Parish Register, Episcopal Church, Gloucester County, 1678-1761

3. Polly Cary Mason, Records of Colonial Gloucester County, Virginia, (Newport News, Va: George C. Mason, 1948) vol 1-2; Christ Church Parish, pp. 6, 9.

4. Christ Church Parish,  pp. 189, 190

5. Mason, Records of Colonial Gloucester County, vol 1.

6. Christ Church Parish, pp 58, 222, 245, 270. The information on the Morrises from Christ Church Parish records is available online in Paul Heinegg’s Free African Americans. 

7.  Gloucester County, VA, Land Tax books, 1782-1850 (microfilm)

8.  June Purcell Guild, Black Laws of Virginia (Negro Universities press, 1969), pp. 5. 19, 97.

9. Gloucester County, VA, Court Minutes, 1822-1825 (microfilm).

10. Ibid., 1834-1839.

11. Ibid., 1839-1842.

12. Ibid., 1858-1867.

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The following is the latest online review of my recent book, The Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies. I especially appreciate the careful and thorough analysis provided by Laura Hepp Bradshaw, a PhD candidate at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

http://www.civilwarmonitor.com/book-shelf/bynum-the-long-shadow-of-the-civil-war-2010

Vikki Bynum

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Although I have yet to meet Jonathan Odell in person, we have been friends for about three years, ever since we discovered that both of us were writing about Newt Knight and the Free State of Jones (click here for his views on that story). Jon’s first novel, The View From Delphi, is a great favorite of mine. His second novel, The Healing,  is forthcoming from Nan A. Talese/Doubleday in February, 2012, and promises to be a blockbuster. My review of it follows.

Vikki

Jonathan Odell’s second novel, The Healing, introduces readers to Gran Gran, the lonely inhabitant of an ancient, decayed mansion located on a former slave plantation. The old black midwife and folk doctor, once a vital presence in the surrounding community of Shinetown, is now dismissed and feared as a witch by Shinetown’s younger generation.

The story opens on a damp winter day in 1933 shortly after Gran Gran finds herself in charge of a young girl, Violet, whose mother has died following an abortion attempt. Gran Gran’s efforts to comfort Violet within the confines of the rambling old mansion—where many years ago she lived as the petted slave child of her deranged mistress, Amanda Satterfield—prepares Odell’s readers for a journey back to when this household vibrated with the laughter, tears, and hustle of slaves alongside the commands, demands, and recriminations of its master and mistress. Back then, Gran Gran—or Granada, as she was called—considered the indulgences of her white mistress as proof that she was above the “swamp slaves” who worked the fields. No harm, she thought, could ever come to a dark-skinned girl allowed to wear a white girl’s ruffles and ribbons, even if that dark-skinned girl was a slave.

Granada’s assumptions are soon challenged by the arrival of Shinetown’s first true healer, the extraordinary Polly Shine. The woman for whom Shinetown will eventually be named is purchased by Master Ben Satterfield in a desperate effort to save his field slaves from the ravages of disease.  Polly, a slave doctor of African and Indian ancestry, immediately sets tongues wagging among free and enslaved alike.  Her healing gifts, combined with her audacious manner and appearance (highlighted by a head scarf festooned with shiny metal disks that fringe her forehead), signal that life will never again be the same for those who live at Satterfield Plantation, whether in its Great House or its most distant and dismal slave quarters.   

Day-by-day in serial fashion Gran Gran tells Violet her life’s story, transporting her—and readers—back to the world of slavery. The tedium of field work, the dangers of swamp life, and the horrors of epidemic disease mark the lives of slaves, as do the personal triumphs, defeats, sorrows, and joys of daily life. Odell effectively contrasts the perspectives of the free and the unfree, showing their lives to be inextricably entangled. Like so many slaveholders, Master Ben prides himself on understanding the mental and physical characteristics of Africans that he believes have destined them for slavery; yet the institution that has brought slaveholders such great wealth has also brought Ben and Amanda Satterfield an equal measure of personal misery.

The women of Satterfield Plantation are The Healing’s centerpiece. Moving between present and past, Odell creates parallel relationships between adolescent girls and wise old women (Polly and Granada, Gran Gran and Violet) in which motherhood—its joys and its sorrows—is a recurring theme. Whether addressing the slaveholding regime of the antebellum South or the hard-bitten segregated society of twentieth-century Mississippi, Odell places women’s reverence for motherhood alongside desperate acts of abortion driven by rape, coercive sexual liaisons, and economic impoverishment. 

Gran Gran’s efforts to revive Violet’s spirit by telling her the story of Shinetown forces her to confront painful events of her own life—the loss of her mother, her failure of nerve in the presence of so great a force for freedom as Polly Shine, her years as Shinetown’s doctor. Happily, Violet does not remain the passive recipient of Gran Gran’s hard-won wisdom. Readers will delight in the manner in which she becomes the vehicle for the remembrance and reconciliation of past hurts that allows Gran Gran’s own deadened spirit to soar, and which provides the book’s final message of hope.

Victoria Bynum

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